Eight linked stories cast a baleful light on fear, loathing, and sexual repression in the Bible Belt.
Brace yourself for immersion in a world of sinners and saved, backsliders and revivals, where women are often Satan’s means of tempting men and two men coupling are the ultimate abomination. It is a world seen up close in the “boring, stale, weary little town” of Perser, Oklahoma, dominated by its First Pentecostal church. The opening stories don’t quite work. “Of Falling” contrasts its passive, tight-lipped protagonist’s near-fatal fall and excruciating dreams with his posturing wife’s well-protected falls at revival meetings, while “Courtship” presents a Perser native who’s been in love with another man since they were playmates—though Jansen, scared silly by his church, doesn’t see himself as gay. This drawn-out story has a plaintive Carson McCullers quality, but Gwyn flubs Jansen’s climactic declaration, compensating with a closing image of heterosexual perversion worthy of Kraft-Ebbing. Then come two effective vignettes: “Against the Pricks” has 14-year-old Gabriel, tormented by self-abuse but cleansed by a revival, lashing out viciously at a sweetly innocent potential girlfriend, while in “In Tongues,” not even the pastor is safe from the Devil. Losing the gift of tongues, the Reverend Hassler spews filth from the pulpit, wrecking his ministry. Not all the insights into Pentecostalism are negative—Spencer, a lonely liberal in “Truck,” envies his God-struck mother’s “simple abandon”—yet the powerful and well-plotted closing pieces are a no-holds-barred indictment of fundamentalism run amok. In “The Backsliders,” some kids stumble on two guys having sex in a cave, and an enraged church elder batters one of them so hard he kills him. “Dog on the Cross,” true to its title, is about a puppy found nailed to an outdoor cross during a weeks-long revival conducted by a mesmerizing teenage preacher. It’s an exciting whodunit with an obvious suspect, a reclusive easterner, though the physical evidence points to the evangelists themselves.
When Gwyn eventually hits his stride, he’s terrific. An auspicious first.